By Brian Lafferty
August 11, 2011 (San Diego) – It can get really eerie when a movie parallels your life. The Tree does so for me, striking a powerful emotional cord.
When I lost my mother last November, the following month was the most grueling period of my life. I was angry, sad, and lost. On Christmas night I looked up in tears and asked my mother, “How can I live my life if you’re not in it?” I fell asleep.
The next morning I felt changed. Since then I’ve had some downs but I’ve felt nowhere near as miserable. After my recent vacation, I haven’t felt so good in a long time.
I attribute this change to my mother. I believe she heard me talk to her and, while I was sleeping, spoke to me. I will never know what she said. But I do know that she always had a way of saying things in a way that made me feel better.
The Tree reminded me of that. It captures with astounding accuracy the period of loss and grief with an added slight touch of magical realism.
Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Dawn, an Australian mother of four who is suddenly a widow. Her husband collapsed at the wheel of his truck and died when it crashed into the large tree that dominates the front yard. Late one night, her daughter Simone (Morgana Davies) ventures out to the tree and soon believes that the spirit of her father is communicating to her through the tree. Dawn is initially skeptical, but she quickly becomes convinced.
Things get complicated when the tree and its roots encroach on the house and the neighborhood. The tree must be cut down. But Dawn and Simone disapprove, as it’s all that they have left of their husband and father.
For me, acting is often difficult to quantify. It’s hard for me to dissect a performance or figure out why a piece of acting is so good. I think part of it is my autism makes it difficult (but not impossible) for me to read people.
In this case, Charlotte Gainsbourg made it easy. She is honest in her portrayal of a grieving widow trying to hold the fort down. I use the term “honest” not in the sense that she bares her soul. Rather, she is accurate in her depiction of grief.
For example, in one scene she lies in bed, alone. She cries but it’s not the loud sobbing type of crying. It’s the silent, gasping type. It’s the kind of crying where you want to express it vocally but the fear that someone will hear you and come over to you holds you back. After her husband’s death, Dawn is lost, often tired, and despondent. All of this is acted with pinpoint accuracy without being either underplayed or overplayed.
It isn’t just the actors that are a pleasure to watch. Cinematographer Nigel Bluck immerses every shot of daylight with the color and shine of a sunflower. Everything is so bright that it acts as a visual contrast against a time of darkness and despair.
The Tree doesn’t get anywhere near sentimental. It is a little slow but nowhere near the kind of slow seen in Meek’s Cutoff and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. There is a lot of thought but it doesn’t get too philosophical. This is as real as I’ve seen a film and its characters deal with death. I can vouch for its authenticity.
The Tree is now playing at the Landmark Ken.
A Zeitgeist Films release. Director: Julie Bertuccelli. Screenplay: Julie Bertuccelli and Elizabeth J. Mars. Original Music: Grégoire Hetzel. Cinematographer: Nigel Bluck. Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Morgana Davies, Marton Csokas, Christian Byers, Tom Russell, Gabriel Gotting, Aden Young, and Penne Hackforth-Jones.